Story Excerpt

The Chinese Dog Mystery

by James Lincoln Warren
 

Chinese-Dog_Ally-Hodges
Art by Ally Hodges

Why is it that pretty girls always show up unexpectedly at the worst possible time? Is it some natural law, like Newton’s rule about apples bonking you on the noggin with an equal and opposite force in the opposite direction? (Which, frankly, I never really understood either.) Or is it the ancient Curse of the Cramburys, of which we never speak? Although if I were to expect a pretty girl unexpectedly at the worst possible time, it would have to be Nola Channing, who never bothers to knock in the first place. She just swings the door open, her dark wavy hair bouncing and her agate eyes gleaming, and proclaims her presence like a fearless goddess descending from Olympus. Usually with words along the lines of, “It’s Nola! Where are you, parasite?”

Only this time, she said:

“Benjamin! Why are you trying to wrap a tea towel around your head?”

“My name,” I replied, struggling with the towel, “isn’t Benjamin.”

“Then why does everybody call you Bennie?” she asked, her perfect heart-shaped face shining with dubiousness or dubiety or whatever it’s called. “Benedict? Benson? Surely not Benvenuto.”

“None of the above,” I replied, suppressing a sneer.

“But don’t you sign your checks, when you have enough money in the bank to actually write checks, ‘B. Cowes Crambury’?”

“No, I sign them ‘E. Cowes Crambury.’” This was pronounced with my signature soupçon of savoir faire.

“E? Are you sure? What’s it stand for?”

“I’ll never tell,” I said. And I never will, because it stands for Ebenezer.

“Of course you won’t. But you still haven’t explained the towel.”

“You’ve hardly given me a ch—”

“Whatever it is, it’s bound to be ridiculous.” She plopped down on the sofa next to me. “I had a bear of a day at the studio. Rewrites for ‘Bells on Her Toes,’ our latest screwball comedy, ugh. I wish they’d assign me something with a little more oomph. Now. The towel.”

“The thing is, it’s a secret. Life and death. You understand.”

“Yeah, I understand that everybody at the party tonight is going to hear about how I found you wrapping a tea towel around your head, unless you spill the beans.”

“Party?” I sat up straight.

“At the big house. The one your aunt is throwing in honor of Dante Quintana for starring in The Burglar of Basra. Remember?”

This was Oakes Bros. Pictures’ latest big box-office costumer, which I had seen four times.

“Um, I forgot.”

“Anne Standish will be there,” Nola teased, knowing that like every other red-blooded American male, I had a mad crush on Quintana’s costar.

Then I was suddenly struck by lightning, although now that I think about it, it must be very unusual to be gradually struck by lightning. “Nola! Where are your glasses? And you’re . . . you’re wearing earrings! And a necklace! And a DRESS!”

“Do not try to deflect me from my awful purpose, Bennie. The tea towel.”

I sighed. “You’re always calling me a parasite.”

“True. But it’s nothing personal. Most of the time, you’re a very sweet parasite.”

“I’d rather not be any kind of parasite. All right, I’ll tell you, but you have to promise to keep it absolutely, utterly, completely, totally—”

“Secret? I suppose I must.”

“Say it.”

She batted her eyes. “I promise I will never tell anyone why you are trying to wrap a tea towel around your head, cross my heart and hope to die. Satisfied?”

“Hmph. The truth is, I’m tired of being a parasite, or at least I’m tired of being called a parasite. Therefore, in order to lay this foul accusation to rest, I have decided to make a major contribution to society. One that E. Cowes Crambury, well-known bon vivant and man-about-town, is uniquely qualified to provide.”

Those huge eyes slowly blinked. I hate it when she does that. Who wants to be hypnotized?

“I’m sorry, Bennie. Did you just use your name and the word ‘qualified’ in the same sentence?”

“I did. I haven’t done so well in previous projects because I was trying to be something I’m not, but in this case I will be playing to my strengths, so I expect it to be the most qualified success imaginable.”

“That’s not at all hard to imagine.”

“What?”

“Stop stalling, Bennie,” she said, furrowing her charming brow.

“Very well. Prepare yourself.”

“At this point, I’m prepared for anything.”

I lifted my chin dramatically, which isn’t as easy as it sounds when you’ve been trying to wrap a tea towel around your head. “I have decided to become a mysterious masked crime fighter!”

Her face was devoid of all expression. It was still very pretty, though.

“I was going to tell you not to be stupid,” she said after staring at me for several seconds, “but then I remembered that you’re a guy, so what’s the point? But I need a little help here. Towel. Mask. Towel. Mask. I’m not quite getting the connection, unless you cut holes for your eyes in the towel. But even you aren’t that dense.”

“Of course not. Obviously, the towel is for my turban. For the mask, I’m going to wear a silk veil over the lower half of my face.”

“A turban. And a silk veil.”

“Yes. Because my crime-fighting title is going to be, you’re going to love this, the Secret Swami!

“The Secret Swami.”

“Yes.”

“You’re going to fight crime.”

“With every considerable resource at my disposal.”

“I see. Tell me, does the old Roller, the engine of which Ramón has spread out all over the driveway to the coach house, have anything to do with this?”

I tried to look surprised. “What Roller?”

“The ancient Rolls-Royce that has spent the last twenty years in your uncle’s garage collecting dust, the one whose engine Ramón has spread out, et cetera. I have a sinking feeling that you’re thinking of turning it into your Batmobile.”

“More like my Black Beauty, which as you might know, is the name of the Green Hornet’s car. Except I’m calling it the Magic Carpet.”

Nola heaved a sigh and held up her index finger.

“One. You do realize that the Green Hornet and the Shadow and the Lone Ranger are only shows on the radio, right? Not any more real than Zorro or the Scarlet Pimpernel.”

“Zorro wasn’t real?” I could have sworn he was. But later I found out she was right.

Her index finder was joined by her middle finger in a V.

“Two. You can’t drive.”

“I can too.”

“No, you can’t, not without launching your car off the road into a deep canyon where it will explode. Trees and stop signs verily tremble at the idea of you behind the wheel.”

“Well, you won’t have to worry about that whatsoever,” I said in my wounded pride, “because Ramón has agreed to be my chauffeur, like Kato is to the Green Hornet, at least when he’s not driving Aunt Madeleine to Bullock’s Wilshire for tea or Mr. Sydney for her hair, I mean Ramón driving her, of course, not Kato. Only I’m going to call him Ram the Mystic instead of Ramón the Mechanic, because Ram is an Indian name and Ramón isn’t. He’ll have his own turban.”

“I don’t believe you. Ramón Estrada is a man of uncommon common sense.”

“That’s where you’re wrong. Not about the Ramón having common sense part, but about the you-don’t-believe-me part. Ramón said he realized I require someone by my side in my war against the forces of evil.”

She nodded. “Uh-huh. You mean he said that if you’re so hell-bent on doing such a harebrained thing, you’re going to need somebody with smarts around to keep you out of trouble.”

She held up her ring finger with the other two.

“Three. ‘The Magic Carpet’ is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard, and I am inured to hearing you say dumb things. Magic carpets come from The Arabian Nights. Do you know why those stories are called The Arabian Nights?”

“No.”

“Because they come from Arabia. Not India.”

“The name goes well with the turbans and I’m keeping it. So there.”

“I’m pretty sure swamis don’t wear turbans, either, which brings me to . . . Four.” The pinky went up. “What do you know about Indian swamis, anyway? Zero.”

“That’s what you think. I once saw Parma—Praha—”

“Paramahansa Yogananda?”

“That’s him. Anyway, I once saw Parga, um, Yahoma—well, you know perfectly well whom I mean, and I learned a lot.”

“Was he wearing a turban?”

She had me there, but I was equal to the challenge. “He probably took it off. It was indoors.”

She shook her head, and then the thumb was out.

“Five. Whatever do you mean that you’re ‘uniquely qualified’? You’ve never held a regular job, not for more than forty-eight hours, anyway. And you’ve been thrown out of seven different colleges.”

“Six. I only left the seventh because Uncle Sherman refused to pay for it anymore. But mere academic qualifications aren’t the qualifications that matter.” I gave her a sly smile. “What do all mysterious masked crime fighters have in common? Not only with each other, but with me?”

“Delusional ideation?” She gave a sly smile of her own.

“Show a little respect, Nola. Allow me to explain. First, they are masters of detection. And let me tell you, these eyes see all.”

“It took you ten minutes to realize I was wearing a cocktail dress instead of my usual slacks and blouse, Bennie.”

I waved off her objection. “Secondly, they are all secretly millionaires. The Green Hornet is newspaper publisher Britt Reid. The Shadow, socialite Lamont Cranston. Playboy Bruce Wayne is Batman. Loaded with lucre, every one of them.”

“Don’t you see how crazy that is? How could any real millionaire, a man whose picture is published in the papers at least once a week, interviewed on the radio like clockwork, and who is always publicizing what a great a philanthropist he is, ever expect not to be recognized in ten-seconds flat when he’s out doing some fat-headed act of vigilante derring-do, just because he’s wearing some silly and outlandish disguise? It’s patently absurd.”

She stopped to catch her breath, but she wasn’t finished. “Not to mention, pobrecito, that you don’t have two beans, let alone two pennies, to rub together.”

Now I was offended. Sort of. “I’m worth four million dollars.”

“Your trust fund is worth four million dollars, but it’s controlled by your uncle, who doles out just enough of it to you to keep you from dunning him every five minutes. The way I heard it is that the terms of the trust are such that you personally can’t get at it until you match it, so unless you have figured out a way to get four more million dollars, and I know you’ve tried every get-rich-quick scheme in the book to no avail, you’re a pauper.”

“I’ve just been unlucky. It’s only a matter of time,” I said, sniffing.

“Yep. Like the Second Coming is only a matter of time, Bennie. Ask the Seventh Day Adventists about that. But I don’t have time for this. Go put on your monkey suit and let’s go to the party.”

“I’m not sure I feel like it.” I turned back to my tea towel, and with immense dignity attempted to wrap it around my head again.

“You’re going about it all wrong, you know,” Nola said. “All you need to do is ask any girl who’s ever had wet hair to show you how.”

“Then it can’t be that difficult. Besides, if we go to the party, you’ll spend the whole time ridiculing me for not being able to figure out how to do something that girls can do without thinking about it. I’ll have you know that I’m just as good at not thinking about things as anyone.”

“Don’t be a jackass. I keep my promises, and I won’t say a word. But I want you to promise me something in return.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. If you persist in pursuing this insane idea, promise me that you’ll start with something small. Very small. No bank robberies or jewel thefts or drug rings. And nothing, absolutely nothing, involving guns at all, do you understand? You may be a parasite, but I don’t want you to be a dead parasite. Fair?”

I paused before answering to prove I was thinking about it, although I really wasn’t, because she says I never think at all, so it was important to make her think I was.

“Very well,” I said. “I’ll go get dressed.”

 

I live in the guesthouse on my Uncle Sherman’s Bel Air estate. To get to his and Aunt Madeleine’s mansion, what Nola calls the big house, is a short stroll through the park, sort of in the same way that a pilgrimage to Mecca is a short stroll, only with grass and trees. So we walked. Nola actually took my hand when she almost slipped on one of the flagstones in her heels, but she released it right away.

You may think that I gave in too easily to Nola’s demand that we go to the party, but on the other hand, why not take advantage of a free martini or three when they’re on offer? Besides, maybe I’d find an opportunity to impress Anne Standish. I’d heard that her romance with Dante Quintana was on the rocks. But even more importantly, I had a professional, if furtive, purpose in attending.

You see, I hadn’t been completely honest with Nola when I listed the qualifications to be a mysterious masked crime fighter because I didn’t want to show all of my hand. For example, I had cunningly clouded her mind when I told her that millionaire Lamont Cranston was the Shadow’s true identity, but he isn’t if you read the books instead of just listen to the radio because he’s actually Kent Allard and only masquerades as Lamont Cranston. (I think there are books. I read the stories in that treasure trove of literary accomplishment, Detective Story Magazine, myself.) But more importantly, I had deliberately left a very important qualification out: To wit, that any good mysterious masked crime fighter must have a network of underworld informers. And my first was a doozie.

Hilda Harper, gossip columnist extraordinaire.

All right, Hilda Harper wasn’t, strictly speaking, an underworld informer, but if there was anything going on in Los Angeles and she wasn’t the first person to know about it, it was only because she’d been in the ladies’ room at the time. Although I hear that ladies’ rooms are hotbeds of gossip, so I could be wrong. Or in case of earthquake or fire keeping her away, maybe she’d be only the second person to know. But she would know soon enough, and in lurid detail.

And I knew Aunt Madeleine would have invited her because Aunt Mad loved nothing better than seeing her name and picture in the paper, and nothing gets your name in Hilda’s column quicker than a Hollywood party, unless it’s a Hollywood divorce. Furthermore, Hilda would especially want to be there to verify the aforementioned hints of trouble between the tall, dark, and handsome Dante Quintana, and the stunning but demure Anne Standish.

The party was in full swing around the whatever-the-next-size-up-from-an-Olympic-size-swimming-pool-is swimming pool. Aunt Madeleine had erected awnings all around it, with lit paper lanterns everywhere.

There was a wide staircase leading up from the pool to the house with its broad and high French windows, and on the porch landing, surveying their domain, stood Uncle Sherman and Aunt Mad in all their splendor.

I say splendor, but I’m exaggerating a little. There are two things that Uncle Sherman can’t stand beyond all other things, which is quite a statement if you take into account such blights as full-body rashes and polkas played on the accordion. The first one is Hollywood parties, which he considers frivolous. He’d much rather be working.

So he stood up there glowering, the ever-present fat Havana protruding from his pursed lips sending up enough smoke to summon an Apache war party from one of his Westerns. His balding head glistened like a wet, pink bowling ball. His short, stocky frame was stuffed into his tux, making him look like an ill-tempered grizzly bear in a straitjacket. His shirtfront was so stiff it could probably withstand a withering tommy gun salvo from one of his gangster movies, and the crease in his trousers was sharp enough to shave with. He looked so miserable that I almost felt sorry for him, but he would do anything for Aunt Madeleine.

She, of course, was gorgeous, as were all six of her sisters, including my dear mother, who never leaves Manhattan—the Island in New York City, I mean, where she has a Fifth Avenue address, not the Beach in Los Angeles where she doesn’t—if she can avoid it. But here in California, Madeleine sparkled, her hair a bright burnished gold like the dome of a Persian mosque, her cornflower blue eyes as limpid as a Malibu Beach sunset, and her figure an hourglass handblown by a master Venetian artisan. If only her voice wasn’t a cross between a drill sergeant’s and a garbage truck’s bad brakes.

Which mention of whom brings me to the second thing Uncle Sherman can’t stand: Madeleine’s nephew, a certain E. Cowes Crambury. Nieces she had, seemingly scores of ’em, but I was her only nephew and so was her favorite. As with the parties, Uncle Sherman only put up with me for her sake. Consequently, I always avoid the old badger whenever I can, especially after he banned me from the Oakes Bros. studio lot for something that was not at all my fault. How was I to know that the dynamite plunger was hooked up to real dynamite? I thought it was a prop.

So of course when I saw them up there, and Uncle Sherman already in a foul mood, I made straight for the most distant bar under the awnings. It was getting crowded, the party I mean, not the bar, although the bar was getting crowded, too, so I hoped to escape detection.

Nola saw Anne Standish standing by the edge of the pool and wandered over for a chat, no doubt to explain why Nola wasn’t going to rewrite Anne’s lines into something more clever, as Anne consistently demanded, in Bells on Her Toes, the wretched comedy they were hired on for. According to Nola, this was a constant battle.

I followed in her wake because a good mysterious masked crime fighter, when attending a party as his secret identity, or maybe I mean in his secret identity, but anyway I mean not in his guise as a mysterious masked crime fighter, always manages to eavesdrop: You never know when or how you might come across an important clue. What I overheard pass between the two of them went something like this:

Anne Standish: “Nola Channing, you #%!*& %#&!*. What the *%!&# are you doing here?”

Nola Channing: “Nice to see you, too, Miss Standish.”

Anne Standish: “You’re one of those *!&#% who’s !% #&* Dante, aren’t you?”

Nola Channing: “I don’t know what you mean. I barely know Mr. Quintana.”

Anne Standish: “You do too %*&!# know him! In more ways than one.”

Seeing that their conversation was intended to be private and intimate, I circumspectly took the opportunity to retire. Spotting Hilda Harper talking to Glenn Cable on the other side of the pool, I sauntered over.

Just in time, Cable’s attention was caught by a buxom redhead and he went over to dazzle her with his famous klieg-light smile below an elegant pencil mustache, so I pounced while Hilda was still unoccupied.

“Ah, young Cranberry. Hello, darling,” she said.

“Crambury.”

“I saw your girlfriend Miss Channing getting the fireworks from Anne Standish. Anne thinks every attractive woman in the movie business is sleeping with Dante.”

“Are they?” I asked, quickly adding, “Nola’s not my girlfriend. At least I don’t think she is.”

“Then she’s a smart girl,” Hilda said.

“Don’t I know it!”

For some reason Hilda gave me a quizzical look, and then said, “To answer your question, no, not every attractive woman in the movie business is sleeping with Dante. Only about half of them.”

She took a slug from her tumbler of neat bourbon.

“So, Denny—”

“Bennie.”

“—tell me something juicy about your Aunt Madeleine.”

“Well, she’s my mother Edith’s sister, and originally her name was plain Maude, but she changed it to Madeleine just before she met Uncle Sherman.”

“Who cares, darling? Your Uncle Sherman’s last name used to Eichenbaum. Everybody changes their names in Hollywood, even me. Is it true she was an heiress?”

“No. The Crambury fortune was on my father’s side. Edith and Maude were two of seven sisters, all of them Cowes. They had nothing to recommend them but their beauty and brains.”

“Well, I’ve met Madeleine, so I believe you about them being Cowes. And she must have had brains as well as bosoms to snare the richest curmudgeon in California. You, on the other hand, must have got your brains from your father, like the money.”

“That’s absolutely right. You’ve heard of the Big Four?”

“I’ve heard of the Big Six.” That’s what they call the biggest studios in Hollywood.

“No, the Big Four,” I said patiently. “You know: Huntington, Stanford, Hopkins, and Whatsisname, who built the railroads. There were actually five of them, and the fifth was my great grandfather, Aloysius Crambury.”

She looked surprised. “Your great grandfather was a railroad man?”

“You could say that,” said Nola. I hadn’t seen her creep up on us. “In the sense that he was railroaded out of every town in California.”

“A base canard!” I said, desperately wanting to shut Nola up. “Why, without him, the rails would never have been laid. He was the inventor of Crambury’s Patent Tonic Syrup and Liniment, and without that, everybody would have been too sore to continue working. I’m sure you’ve heard the famous advertisement: ‘Got Cramps? Think Crambury’s,’ and who could forget, ‘When Nothing Else Works, You Might As Well Try Crambury’s’?”

Hilda guffawed. “You inherited your fortune from a snake oil salesman?”

“Crambury’s Tonic Syrup was entirely botanical, distilled from a special blend of herbs and berries, and fortified with—”

“It was half bathtub gin and half castor oil,” Nola said. “Old Aloysius had other scams, too, but none of them ever worked. The real Crambury family fortune didn’t start to accumulate until Prohibition, when Bennie’s father started selling the old family recipe paint thinner out of the back of a truck. And then two trucks. And then six, then twelve, twenty, and so forth.”

This was our darkest family secret, and was part of the reason I had decided to balance the books with my own quest for justice, to mitigate the stain my criminal forebears had visited upon the family escutcheon. I had no clue how Nola knew about it. Unless maybe I had told her. I was struck almost speechless, but luckily I do not require presence of mind to talk. “Ah, I, um, well, uh—”

Hilda interrupted me before I got to the good part. “So what did Anne have to say, Miss Channing, other than %&#!*?”

“I wouldn’t normally say a word to you about anybody I work with, Miss Harper, but that drunken virago has it coming. Not only did she accuse me of sleeping with Dante Quintana, but she blamed me for stealing her little dog.”

A hubbub emerged from the direction of the mansion. We turned to discern its cause.

“Well, well, well,” Nola said. “Right on schedule. Here’s the guest of honor.”

The Latin lover was making his entrance, fashionably late as was de rigueur, and women were flocking to him like flies, assuming flocks are what flies fly in. It was then that I noticed he was dark and handsome, all right, but hardly tall. He was only about five foot four in elevator shoes. Even Uncle Sherman towered over him, if five six can be considered towering, which it probably can’t, considering, and of course Aunt Mad towered over both of them.

“Excuse me while I go flirt with him,” said Nola, downing her champagne in a single gulp. “I hate actors, but I’ve got a knife that needs twisting.” And off she went.

“Anne’s dog has been kidnapped?” Hilda asked herself out loud. “I wonder—”

“Wonder what, Hilda?”

“I have it on good authority that that dog was a gift to Anne from Dante himself, Bernie.”

“Bennie.”

“Some Chinese breed, a Pekingese or a shih tzu or something. I wonder if he took it back? I’ll bet he did. It’s precisely the sort of cruel thing he would delight in.”

I was suddenly struck by lightning again, although I understand that getting struck by lightning twice is very rare, even when it isn’t all that sudden. But now, by sheerest inspiration, it had all come to me in a flash, which unlike being struck twice, is not at all uncommon with lightning.

What had come to me was the Secret Swami’s first case. . . .

 

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Copyright © 2017. The Chinese Dog Mystery by James Lincoln Warren